Growing up Jewish, queer, and Autistic in Birmingham, Alabama, I faced a great deal of bullying and prejudice. Instead of stepping in to address the bullying, my parents, teachers, and therapists tried to help me act more “normal,” hide my queerness, and learn how to fit in. I quickly learned one of the most insidious and effective ways that oppression is perpetuated: by holding the oppressed, rather than the oppressor, responsible for it.
In college, I began studying the topic of bullying and getting involved with anti-bullying efforts. I learned that the most common reason children get bullied is due to their weight or size, and instead of preventing this weight-based bullying, many teachers and parents instead encourage children to lose weight. In other words: If you want to be safe in this culture, you need to look the part.
This is an important aspect of visual privilege. In so many ways, the mainstream ethos is simply: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” As long as you look like everyone else on the outside, and don’t say any different, what you feel on the inside is your business. You want to kill your family, abuse small children, dissect live kittens, build nuclear weapons in your basement, remove your genitals with a hatchet, crash your head into concrete. All good — so long as you say nothing to no one — ever.
That’s the hallmark of visual privilege. No one gives a rip what is going on on your insides. To the contrary, so long as you look good on the outside and play the social part — right job, car, date, SES, haircut, complexion, trainers, threads — everyone automatically assumes that your life is good to go. You only lose that if you open your mouth or violate a norm in some socially visual way.
That’s the problem, in my experience, as a person of variable sizes. Once my body reaches a certain size, there is literally nowhere to hide. Also, if I lose weight and then gain enough of it back, everyone sees so everyone knows.
And what is it that they know? The reality is: I could be dying inside. I could be wanting to kill myself. I could be so overwhelmed with life — the pain, the suffering of this world, the thinking I have to fix it because if I don’t no one else will. I could be running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to be everything to everyone who needs anything, because I live in a world where there is so much need and so little caring and, heck, someone has to start caring so why not me… I could be staying up days on end writing petitions, or briefs, or legislation trying to raise consciousness and advocate for those who have given up or can’t or won’t advocate for themselves in order to try and make the world a fairer, more socially just place for all of us…
But what really matters about my life to those I come across when I risk a public viewing:
“You’ve gained weight.”
“Do you really think you need that ice cream?”
“You’re buying regular coca cola…?”
“Wow! Two liters.”
“You have a stain on your shirt.”
“You didn’t comb your hair.”
“I used to go back for seconds too, but then I started asking myself, do I really need that…?“
“You could get diabetes from all that sugar.”
“You really should take better care of your health.”
“Yanno, you only get one body…”
Fuckers. The reality is I need the 3 liters of coke, the quart of ice cream, dozen doughnuts or bag of cookies (often all three) to have energy to fix the world that you’re letting go to hell in a handbasket.
And, yes, I also need that salty bag of chips to stop the fluid flush from the coffee and caffeine that keeps me trucking along trying to transform tyranny into community long past your nighty-night tuck-in time for your fashion industry-sponsored, healthcare-approved ‘beauty rest.’ Pathetic as it seems, in a world where people have to tell people that “black lives matter” and a lot of people still don’t get it, the appearance of relishing “sleep as self-care” is accorded status on par with sacred rites and patriotic acts.
And yeah, I need the three burgers slathered with mayo, onions and the works to level the blood sugar drop and warm my up blood a bit from the chill of common bitterness that doesn’t bother you. Sad to say, you don’t have to look at because society gives you permission to focus all your attention on crimes against propriety instead of crimes against humanity. And since one of these is my weight, you are morally authorized by the society we live into to put all your energy and attention on that. Yep, instead of doing something about poverty, cruelty, abuse or injustice, you have done your moral duty by all of us if you simply notice and correct my observable transgression of the proper fat to muscle composition — for North American homo sapiens in 2018.
That, in effect, is how visual privilege works. Any questions…?
Well, probably you have some, but even if you don’t, you still should read on here. Because my friend Emily is going to give you this awesome analysis of how visual privilege, sizeism, and psych rights all match up and translate into Massive Sit-On-Top-Of-You-Squash-The-Air-And-Life-Out-Of-You Butt-Headed OPPRESSION with a CAPITAL “O.”
I’ve always had thin privilege. But even so, children’s and teenagers’ experiences being told to diet and exercise in order to not be bullied deeply resonated with me. So in my senior year, I decided to take a closer look at sizeism and fat oppression. In the end, I wrote my honors thesis on sizeism in the education system.
And then I was locked up. Not because of my thesis. But because I was stressed out by the end of semester rat-race, and made an off-hand comment to someone to the effect that “I felt like killing myself.” Next thing you know, I was in an ER being interrogated. They held me three days, during which time I was restrained, strip searched, secluded, and forcibly drugged. I actually missed my college graduation — the one I had work so hard for for, yanno, three years of my life….
Since my initial hospitalization, I have become intricately involved in the Mad Pride and the psychiatric survivor movement. For that, I have the fat acceptance movement to thank. It gave me a framework to conceptualize and critically evaluate my experiences.
Paternalism is defined as the policy or practice of restricting a person or group’s freedom or autonomy in their supposed best interest. I had learned a great deal about paternalism for my honors thesis, and through my hospitalization, I saw it firsthand. After my hospitalization, I was told that abuses that had happened to me were “for my own good.” Tempting, I know. But, fortunately I was able to recognize the familiar ring. This is exactly what we tell children, teenagers and people of size about bullying they are subjected to every day:
On a daily basis, people of size are verbally and physically harassed, bullied, mocked, and excluded. They are told that this harassment is acceptable and even necessary. It is considered “caring”: We only want to help you. We care about your health — don’t you? It is considered “responsible.” Thus, friends and co-workers routinely ask intrusive questions: Are you sticking to your diet? Did you take your walk today? It is considered “motivational.” Accordingly, online trolls fat-shame people “so they will be healthier.”
The parallels between sizeism and the oppression that diagnostic labeling creates in the name of mental health are legion. Suffice it to say, my work in the fat acceptance movement continues to inform my work as a psychiatric survivor every day.
Here are the top 4 lessons I learned from the principles of the fat acceptance movement:
Abuses committed for a person’s own good are especially horrific and oppressive.
C.S. Lewis once said, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.”
People who are perceived as different in any way face a number of horrific abuses every single day, including prejudice, discrimination, microaggressions, marginalization, and even hate crime. Groups facing these types of abuses include ethnic and racial minorities, religious minorities, LGBTQ people, sexual and gender minorities, and disabled people.
In addition to these abuses themselves, many of these groups also face an additional layer of abuse and traumatization: victim-blaming. The definition of victim-blaming is holding the victim of a crime or any wrongdoing partially or entirely responsible for the harm they experienced. Many people who are perceived as different are told that if they acted more “normal” and less different, they would not be abused or marginalized.
To me, abuses committed in the name of health are the ultimate form of victim-blaming. Survivors of these abuses are often told that the abuse is justified and merited because of the way they are acting, the way they speak, or the way they look. In my work with the fat acceptance community, I saw the effects of victim-blaming. People of size are told that they have no right to complain about these abuses. They are told that because they supposedly have control over their weight, they are responsible for their harassment, discrimination, and exclusion. If they were just skinnier, none of this would happen.
Thus, not only are people of size abused, but they have no “right” to their own reality. What they suffered was not “abuse”; it was “help” and justifiable social concern or correction. Hence, they are not allowed to feel hurt or wronged in response because there was only “assistance,” not “abuse.” “I want to feel angry and hurt that this happened to me. I want to hate the people who bullied me,” one person of size said to me. “But the only person I’m allowed to be angry at and hate is myself.”
This kind of socially-sanctioned victim-blaming literally makes people crazy. It strips us of our human need and right to recognize and name what hurts us — and then take rational action to protect ourselves from it and defend ourselves against it.
This is what I experienced as someone labeled mentally ill. I was literally considered responsible for the abuses I had to survive. “If you didn’t want to get locked up, you should’ve kept your mouth shut, instead of blabbing about your suicidal thoughts,” one psychiatric nurse said to me. “You were a real danger to yourself. You should be grateful people cared enough about you to get you committed to a hospital where you could get treatment. You shouldn’t be complaining about it,” I heard from countless friends and family members.
It was absolutely agonizing to question whether or not I deserved the abuses I was subjected to. Thankfully, knowing of the experiences of my allies in the fat acceptance community was a great help. I was quickly able to address the victim-blaming of my friends and family and recognize it for what it was. I also have been able to support many psychiatric survivors in seeing that they are not responsible for the abuse they experienced at the hands of psychiatry. This is one of the primary reasons I continue to do activism work in the psychiatric survivor community — so that others, like me, will know that they are not responsible for the abuse that happened to them as a result of psychiatric labeling.
Social death can be worse than physical death.
Because of the abuses and victim-blaming people of size so often experience, there is a real danger of feeling isolated. As a person of size, it can be very difficult to build positive, supportive relationships free from fat-shaming and other types of harassment. Although many people of size do have rewarding relationships, finding these relationships can be more difficult due to social stigma. As a result, it is common for people of size to feel as if they have no community in which they are free to be themselves and exist as they are. Due to societal prejudice, people of size also often face hiring discrimination and have difficulty finding a job that feels meaningful. They are also less likely to get married or have supportive romantic relationships, which can be a good barrier against social isolation.
Many sociologists and other researchers have referred to this isolation as “social death.” Because the human need for attachment — i.e., meaningful connections with other people— is so strong, social isolation can be a major source of depression, hopelessness, and severe distress. It can cause people to feel intense levels of shame, loneliness, and emptiness.
In my work with the fat acceptance movement, I spoke with many people of size who resonated with these experiences and feelings. Some people of size felt that their family was embarrassed or ashamed of them; others said that they could not go out to lunch or dinner with friends without their meal and food choices being monitored. Many people I spoke with said that this sense of shame and isolation had indeed caused them to feel hopeless and depressed.
It is no wonder, then, that many of the people of size I interviewed and spoke with said they would prefer death to feeling so intensely isolated and lonely. Quite a few expressed feelings of suicidality and desiring to die.
This was my first introduction to the concept that suicidality may not result from a chemical imbalance or a “mental illness,” but from distressing and isolating circumstances. It was also the first time I was exposed to the impact of oppression, prejudice, and bigotry on what we call “mental health.” Up until that point, I had been heavily involved with mainstream mental health advocacy groups like NAMI and Active Minds. My work with the fat acceptance movement set the stage for me to begin questioning the conventional paradigm of mental health care.
When I became an activist in the psychiatric survivors movement, I began to hear this story more and more — the story of people who have experienced suicidality, voice-hearing, and other forms of distress and crisis as a result of traumatic life circumstances including isolation, exclusion, and abuse. After hearing these stories, it was only natural for me to reject the medical model of mental illness and work toward a more trauma-informed understanding.
The notion of “health” is often a bogus and oppressive construct.
So much abuse, discrimination, and marginalization of people of size is justified in the name of health. As a result, the fat acceptance movement got me thinking about what “health” actually means.
Many people think of “health” as a person’s likelihood of staying alive, or lack of life-threatening or potentially life-ending conditions. Some people argue that weight gain leads to potentially terminal illnesses or conditions. Numerous academics and researchers have done extensive work refuting these arguments. All well and good, but in my opinion, what really hastens the end of a person’s life is shame and isolation. From what I’ve observed in myself and my own existential struggles, there is no faster or surer route to hopelessness, despair, and suicidality than these. I also am fairly sure that my experience is not unique, given what I’ve heard from others and seen in the research.
So, if the goal really is to make someone live longer, then shaming people for their “unhealthy” bodies, policing their food choices, gossiping about how ugly they are, or telling them to “go on a diet” is more likely to achieve the opposite. And, if the goal is to help someone become healthier, care about themselves more, or become more responsible to the community they live in, then bullying, discriminating or marginalizing them is hardly going to help. Moreover, adding insult to injury by denying that is what you are doing, and perverting reality by re-packaging “abuse” as “help” takes the gaslighting charade to a whole new level. To pitch the movie you’d probably say something like: Suicidality Meets Speed-Dating.
The same thing happens with psychiatric labeling. The stated goal of psychiatry is to help people become mentally healthier. All too often though, psychiatric diagnosis and treatment leads to the same kind of shame, humiliation, and marginalization that people of size experience. Upon being told that one’s brain is broken or diseased, or that one is incapable of making their own decisions, many of us feel hopeless and depressed. We logically conclude that our lives as we know them are over. We are routinely excluded from the community and social circle we used to travel. Even when we are not, the feelings we get from ourselves or others may never quite be the same.
Perhaps the most shameful, embarrassing experience of my life is missing my college graduation due to being locked up in a psychiatric institution. Having to tell that to friends, family, and professors — or lie about my experience of this crucial social mile-marker — certainly has not made me want to live longer!
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines health as “a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well.” The fat acceptance movement — which also advocates for acceptance around all food choices — taught me that no one person, no matter what their credentials, or body of people can make a universal declaration about what is or is not healthy (thriving, living well) for someone else. How can anyone — but the person concerned — possibly know what weight, food, drugs, or environment makes them thrive or feel well? There have been times in my life during which I have felt so distressed, hopeless, and isolated that the only thing getting me through the day was looking forward to my evening Diet Coke and a bag of chips. Yes, these things did not make me “fat.” But neither of them meets my doctor’s definition of a healthful food. But, the reality is that, for me, something in me was craving them — such that glugging that Diet Coke and munching that bag of chips was deeply satisfying for some part of me that needed that kind of fizzy, crunchy visceral validation. So, in a sense, even these questionable diet choices contributed to my being overal well being. In other words, these kinds of choices are often situation-driven and highly individual.
Learning this lesson was very important to my work in the psychiatric survivors movement, where so many people have had decisions forcefully made for them in the name of “health.” People who express suicidality are often locked up in psychiatric institutions and hospitals in the name of being kept “safe.” In this case, confinement is carried out for the purpose of lengthening a person’s life. However, the vast majority of psychiatric survivors are traumatized by their experience of involuntary commitment. Not surprisingly, suicide rates increase hundreds of times following release, and the greatest risk of suicide is in the period immediately following release from hospitalization. So whether you define health as a long life, or as thriving and doing well, it’s not like the forced treatment industry is giving anyone — survivors, families, or communities — a very big bang for the bucks invested.
This leads to a final point. The term “health” is often used as a universal constant. The assumption is that “health” works in the same way for all people. Some things are unhealthy; others are healthy. Just do this or that and you will be “healthy.” This conflates health with the appearance of health — with the visible performance of socially approved health practices and the visible achievement of socially-defined “health” outcomes. In reality, our minds, bodies and experiences of health are diverse. Yes, some general rules apply. But, in the end, we all have our preferences, likes, dislikes, and sensitivities and capacities. A lot of us also probably have our total deal-breakers: the point at which — if we can’t access certain basic things that mean a lot to us — nothing else even matters. The vast majority of this is subjective and has to do with quality of life. All of this points to the wisdom — embraced by the both fat acceptance and psychiatric survivor movements — that the only person who can decide for you what is conducive (or not) to your own health, well-being and thriving is you.
We are all harmed by fatphobia and sizeism, just as we are all harmed by sanism.
It is sometimes tempting to think of the world as a dichotomy between those who are oppressors and those who are oppressed — between those who are privileged and those who are not. In reality, life is much more complicated than that. As I can personally attest, fatphobia potentially affects all of us.
Conventional wisdom among fat acceptance activists is that a fatphobic person is a thin person who is afraid of being fat (or a fat person who is ashamed of themselves). This rings true for me. I have had thin privilege all my life, but I still struggle with the effects of fatphobia. This goes to show how deep the cultural prejudice runs. I wish I was free of fatphobia and continue to challenge sizeism in myself and others when ever it comes up. But, like many people, I was raised in a fairly fatphobic family, and sizeism was part and parcel to my early conditioning. Thus, regular comments were made about how sad or gross it is to be “obese.” My aunt, a person of size, who has always been a role model for me, was mocked and insulted. I grew up with an ever-present fear — no, terror — of gaining weight. I knew the consequences because the world I grew up in made them abundantly clear: If I gained weight and became a person of size, I would be disapproved of by my family and by society at large. Looking back on it, I can clearly see how these attitudes — and my own fatphobia — caused me to struggle with disordered eating throughout college, and very much contributed to my overall distress and anxiety.
The reality is that we live in an appearance-conscious world that gives vast amounts of visual privilege to those (models, athletes, etc.) who are able to meet cultural ideals. This practically guarantees that we will struggle with how we present ourselves to others, if not with our actual size or body image. Consequently, even people with the highest level of thin privilege may harbor great anxiety over how to maintain low weight. Even more important, many of us will turn to harmful, distressing practices — excessive exercise, fad diets, artificial sweeteners — to create the appearance of health. Yet, all the while our attention to actual healthful practices both personally and socially (reduced workload, relief from financial and social stress, sleep, water, nature, deep listening to ourselves and others) is deteriorating. Reducing fatphobia and sizeism would benefit all of us. Taking it a step farther and challenging our cultural obsession with visual privilege would lead to a better relationship with our bodies, ourselves, and each other.
Similarly, the culture we live in gives vast privilege to the appearance of “normal.” All too often, conventional society forces us into categories. For purposes of mental well being, people are perceived (socially diagnosed, assessed, and labeled) as either “normal” (sane) or “crazy” (other). But the reality is that we all struggle with distress, pain, and sadness. We all experience the world in different ways at times and, to some extent, hear voices in one way or another — whether that is the self-critical voice that scrutinizes us in the back of our heads, or voices we conceptualize as distinct entities. But so many people feel that we have to suppress these emotions and unique ways of processing the world. In a sanist world, there is tremendous pressure to appear “neurotypical” (normal /sane) rather than “neurodivergent” (mad/ psychiatric/diagnosable). For the sake of appearances (and survival), most of us repress our emotions and hide our authentic expressions of how we are feeling or thinking in order to fit in.
Just as sizeism does not only harm people of size but also people with thin privilege who experience pressure to maintain their thinness, sanism does not only harm people labeled mentally ill but also people construed as “neurotypical” who face pressure to maintain their facade of normality.
This socially prudent dishonesty hurts all of us. Few of us actually know what the internal worlds of others around us are like. We mostly spend our time guessing and being guessed about. Assumptions are made, and solutions offered, based on pop social theories. Rarely does this get us anywhere worth going with each other, and often it does great harm. All too frequently, we watch helplessly as friends or family melt down, turn to substances, kill themselves or hurt others.
The reality is we could actually know what each other is thinking. We could actually listen, hear, and learn what those we care about deeply want for their own lives and from us as family, friends and allies. We could actually learn together — and from each other — about the deep, rich, rewarding and vastly diverse experience of being human.
But to do that we have to get beyond our obsession with surface appearances. We have to risk the unsafety of something vulnerable, deep, and deeply raw. We have to care more about the fact that the person is in pain, than about the polite social rules they supposedly are violating. In other words, we have to make a decision about what we really value and what values we really want to privilege.
For example, do we care more about:
- The fact that something is going on that is affecting someone deeply; or
- Whether they break our ideas about social niceties in how they try to cope with it?
Do we care more about:
- The fact that someone is going through something that matters greatly to them; or
- Whether they violate the rules of polite society for when and how distress, discomfort or outright displeasure should be expressed (if ever at all)?
Do we care more about:
- The fact that something important is happening and someone is trying to communicate that to us; or
- Whether they follow all our rules and all the rules of our present social world for how communication needs to happen in order to be visually appealing to apparent onlookers.
If you answered 1 — and you actually try to live it — then you get to move on to a world where people care about the deep internal, unseen, hidden realities that are actually happening for other human beings and seek to become true allies of each other’s growth and development as human beings.
If you answered B — and you continue to live it — you get to keep the world we currently live in and continue to have your deepest most important private experiences squashed by the Gargantuan Over-Grown Self-Indulging Self-Gratifying Self-Inflated Oppressive Weight of a conventional visual privilege that is making Big Asses of us all.
Emily and Sarah:
We hope you will join us for an online presentation on this topic tomorrow, Thursday, May 24th, at 8:00 PM Eastern, 5:00 PM Pacific, as part of Sarah’s Power Threat Meaning series. The presentation is called “Smashing Paternalism.” We will discuss the parallels and intersections between the psychiatric survivor movement and the fat acceptance movement.
TO JOIN US:
Join by computer: https://zoom.us/j/119362879
Join by phone: +1 669 900 6833 or +1 646 558 8656
Enter Meeting ID: 119 362 879
International callers: https://zoom.us/u/jkwt3wHh